It is, perhaps, the most sophisticated, witty and thoughtful new building in London in years. So, of course, it is under threat of demolition.
The curious case of 15 Clerkenwell Close has become a bit of a cause célèbre in architecture circles, partly because most architects feel for the beleaguered designer, Amin Taha, and partly because the furore is clearly so stupid.
Taha is a very fine architect whose practice, Groupwork, was shortlisted for the Stirling Prize, the UK’s most prestigious architectural award, only last year (for their elegant tall and slender Barrett’s Grove house in east London with its distinctive basketwork balconies).
Located in the central London borough of Islington, 15 Clerkenwell Close — which itself won a Royal Institute of British Architects award this year — is a profoundly unusual, eccentric and extremely original structure. It draws on the historic nature of its site and an intriguing exploration of the qualities of quarried stone as a raw, undressed material.
The building, with its rough-hewn grid of a façade, houses the practice’s office (in an impressive, mostly subterranean space) and apartments, including the architect’s own family home. Its architecture is an experiment in the structural as well as the textural qualities of stone.
To appreciate this you need to realise that virtually all contemporary façades in the UK are applied — in other words, the brick, concrete, glass or panels are only a veneer attached in some way to a structure, usually concrete. Even heavy-looking stone façades are only an applied layer.
Taha wanted to see what could be done with stone as a structural material, so he built a huge henge of a shell, which supports the structure behind it but which is also separated from the glass box of the building itself, creating a very clear articulation of layers.
In going back to the essence of the stone, on asking the question about how the stone is quarried and how it looks after it is pulled out of the rock face, Taha arrived at its most elemental state, a rough-hewn quality that displays not only the marks of the drills used to extract it but also the exquisitely crisply defined fossils which are usually crushed to make aggregate for concrete as, weirdly, they are seen as undesirable.
The result is an admittedly strange, and slightly jarring, mix of the rough and the smooth, the dressed and the undressed. In places it is harsh to the touch, like bush-hammered concrete; in others it has been polished and smoothed and feels as if it has been worn away over centuries of use and contact.
The space around the building is alive with little visual gags. There is a fragment of an ionic column emerging from the stone — or perhaps being subsumed back into it, picked out in gold and echoing the curls of the ammonite in the rock above. There are little scallop shells cast as handles in a nod to the Church of St James opposite (they were the symbol of the saint and the pilgrims who went to the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, the Spanish church dedicated to him).
There is a little garden to the side, open to the public, with chairs and tables laid out to welcome anyone. Ivy is already climbing around the stone pillars of Taha’s building as if it was being taken back by nature. There are pieces of apparently fallen stone which were given over to masons to carve intricate reliefs, as if revealing some ancient code or iconography from within the rock itself.
But the building, which thrives on allusions to decay and time, to the layers of history and use, and the buildings that once occupied the site, from a Norman house via a nunnery to the slums of the 19th century, is labouring under the threat of its own life being cut far, far too short.
The planning process has been drawn out over some six years, since the initial planning application. In June 2017, a demolition order was issued but then withdrawn.
Islington Council issued a second demolition order this February, after decreeing that the building does not fit in with its neighbours, that it somehow upsets the character of their conservation area and that the drawings posted on the planning application do not match the form as built. Ironically, its immediate context is a rather dim mix of 1980s faux Victorian brick housing, which is as dull as anything you might see in a far-flung suburb.
There was a plan to build the building in bronze, then another to use brick, until Taha settled on the stone which he has so brilliantly articulated. The brick is the one the neighbours were expecting when the scaffolding came off and the one displayed on the council’s planning portal in an apparent administrative mix-up. Taha is appealing the demolition order.
The woeful story raises the spectre of “fitting in” — this apocryphal notion of decorum which, in a place like Clerkenwell, so dense with built history, is anathema. Should it fit in with the 18th-century stone church? With 1980s housing? With industrial lofts now appropriated by architects? With contemporary commercial development designed to recall a version of Belgian modernism or early Bauhaus?
Taha has created an experimental building which is dignified and striking and which reveals its story gradually, layer by layer, like Clerkenwell itself. It deserves not only to be allowed to stay but to be lauded.
Photographs: Tim Soar